What determines if you like or dislike a song?

Perhaps I'm reading/listening too much into this, but I was actually driving to work one day and Justin Timberlake's "Filthy" came on the radio. I haven't heard this play for quite some time but this was one example of a song that I couldn't decide if I liked nor disliked. Perhaps as a singer-songwriter and musician I have a more analytical approach when I listen to new material. What is it that determines if we like or dislike a song? Or do we JUST know - subconsciously? Somehow? Are there songs that we learn to "like" over time by principle of exposure? These are all important questions to me as a singer-songwriter because as with any other musician/artist, we aim to create and produce material that resonates and are appreciated by those who are receiving our work. From the listener's point of view, these are some factors that I think in no particular order, separates those songs we keep going back to and those that we prefer to archive.


1. Familiar Patterns

Did you know that our minds are actually very close-minded when it comes to sounds? About 90% of the songs on our playlist are songs that we've heard before. Why is that? You would think that our minds crave for the unpredictable, surprise, shock  and excitement factor. In fact it is very much the complete opposite. When we listen to our playlists we know the lyrics, we know how the song unfolds musically, we know when the climax of the song is coming - in other words because we know what's coming, it's almost as if we feel like we are "creating" the music and as if the music was a part of us. There is the element of safety in patterns. Our adult-music tastes are essentially wired to its entirety by the age of 14 and by then we have already developed our musical tastes, templates and genres. When we listen to a new or unfamiliar sound, our brains are actively searching for recognizable patterns so that we can predict what's coming next in the otherwise unknown and "mysterious" new sounds.

                                      My nephew liking his auntie's songs? #wishfulthinking

This doesn't mean that we are not receptive to new sounds because like our personalities and character, taste in music evolves over time. It just happens that if our brains cannot detect the patterns, most likely we won't like the song at first listen. But if you spend a lot of time in your car (in rush hour traffic) and listen to radio stations that play the TOP 40 list ad nauseam, chances are a song that you didn't like initially will slowly grow on you aka. the exposure effect. Hearing a song over and over again will increase our likelihood to like the song - because repetition makes the unfamiliar, familiar. It teaches us how to listen by being aware and knowing what is our music "template" - and to do so is through repetition and overlap. It's kind of like brainwashing - and the big record labels in the music industry know exactly how to use this principle to their advantage!


2. Connection

This I find is a multi-level factor and so, I will be breaking it down to its sub categories!

a. Emotional Connection

The reason why I love R&B and Neosoul is literally because of the way it makes me feel. I call it "THE MMMHHHH" feeling - that's literally how I feel when I love a song that I'm listening to. There is a science behind that feeling and it comes from our natural "feel good" neurotransmitters known as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. We talked about how our brains searches for patterns and by doing so we are anticipating the "best parts" of the songs. The anticipation for when the beat drops in "Hold On" by The Internet brings on excitement and a feeling of "I cant' wait" moment. Our brains at this very moment are releasing dopamine and we get engrossed in our emotional high.

Sometimes the songs we love evoke catharsis - ie. during our most trying, difficult and stressful moments such as we find in heartbreak, loss of a loved one, an intense argument and in many more situations. The songs we love often are songs that help us "de-stress" or for a moment in time help us forget about our troubles, release all of the intense emotions and give us strength, encouragement and push to move on. "Troubles" by Alicia Keys has gotten me through A LOT!!

                                       Feeling one of the many songs I love to perform - emotional connection!

b. Nostalgia - "The Good Ol' Times"

Emotional connections will usually evoke memories from our past to a time and place with happy personal associations. I am going extreme old school with this one but I love this song because of the memory that it always brings back when I listen to it. "I Want You" by Savage Garden brings me back to the summer of 1997 when my twin sister and I went to swimming lessons - every summer I look forward to completing another level in swimming because I loved it and for some reason this song seemed to play before or after our lesson. It was a rewarding, fun and happy memory for me!

c. Relevance Through Lyrical Connection

We discussed a lot about the emotional connections that leads us to like a song but just as equally influential are the lyrics. What shapes the whole music listening experience are the words. Much like reading a book the lyrics share a story, a moment, a message, a lesson, an experience that for some can find such relevance to the extent where it's almost as if the song is about them. When it seems like nobody understands, our favourite songs can offer a place of solace, a safe space to grieve and to be vulnerable on occasions when we normally don't feel comfortable doing so. It is an outlet. That is also why using repetition in phrases usually found in choruses, are so important because it drives home an idea or an emotion that the creators want listeners' to latch onto.

How do YOU know if you like or dislike a song? Share your thoughts below!


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